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A farewell to innocence

I was in sixth grade when a teacher gave me a copy of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Take away The Hobbit and some Robert Louis Stevenson and this was the first truly adult novel I'd ever read. I remember only the barest outline of the plot. American joins Italian army ambulance corps in World War I, is wounded in the legs, falls in love with a British nurse, she dies.

Far more vivid is my memory of how self-important I felt receiving the book from this charismatic teacher. He had selected me, he said, because he thought I might make a writer.

I understood what he was telling me: You want to be a writer? Write like this.

But I didn't understand the book.

How could I? I was 11 years old. Many years would pass before I would find myself thinking "What the hell?" as a woman I was trying to seduce asked some form of the question, "You'll be good to me, won't you, darling?"

But that weary grace of Hemingway's characters, that was powerful stuff. It was a life I could not imitate with an 8:30 p.m. bedtime, of course, but I gave it free rein in my writing. Disastrous. And it only got worse the more Hemingway I read.

I finally tired of the pose. My own, and what I came to believe was Hemingway's. Enough with the "very fine," already.

Maybe, too, I rejected Hemingway as I had already rejected the teacher who gave me the book. He had turned out to be something of a fraud.

He'd found refuge in a world of impressionable boys too young to discern the stain of insecurity behind his bravado. Upon his favorites he lavished unwarranted praise. Upon the weak he directed the group's scorn. He was my first lesson in the meanness and caprice of adults.

I didn't expect to enjoy rereading the book. The dialogue still strikes me as artificial and hollow. But I found something this time that had escaped me nearly three decades ago.

Toward the end of the book, Frederic Henry has deserted the army during a massive retreat and he finds his lover Catherine Barkley at a hotel near Milan. She is pregnant, and he will be shot if the army catches him. Hemingway ends the passage about their reunion this way:

"If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are one of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

I think this sounded like tough guy wisdom when I first read it. But this time I read it as fear.

In a world of perpetual war, Hemingway knew that death was not restricted to the battlefield. Likewise, Henry knew he might escape a firing squad, but he would not escape the suffering of senseless death.

He's right. Catherine dies of a hemorrhage after her Caesarean delivery, which fails to save the baby.

I've seen dead people and know the stupid, meaningless ways they died. And I've seen babies, my babies, pulled from a gaping womb, alive. But I know now how little separates them, all of us, from death.

I understand that fear.